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Honing Craft at a Conference

The problem with having set the standard with well thought out, well edited and well written blog posts is that you have to continue with the well thought out, well edited and well written posts, even when you’re tired and the well is dry and the dog is groaning at your feet because he wants to play frisbee. (Y’all might not think this blog is all that, but I do, and you’re still reading, so there) But I had a heck of a weekend and the rest of the week stretches out before me like a giraffe trying to reach that last branch, so I’m going to cut myself some slack just this once and talk about one of the reasons why I feel like the antagonist from Zombieland.

This last weekend was the Pikes Peak Writers Conference down in Colorado Springs. My very first writing conference. I felt very official. I had business cards. They said “Kendra Merritt: Novelist” so I guess that makes me a professional, right? No? Well, I’ll keep trying then. PPWC is considered one of the friendliest conferences in the country, and it really is. I swear every staff member knew my name by the end of the weekend and every published author I talked to was really excited about my pitch and wanted to hear about how it went. For the first time since PT school, I felt like I was part of a professional community. I belonged there. When I tell people that I’m a writer, I get a variety of responses, but the inevitable “Are you published” always sinks my boat. At PPWC it didn’t matter that I wasn’t published yet. I was still respected for pursuing my writing goals and honing my craft.

Carol BergThursday was filled with an entire day’s worth of Young Adult workshops. I spent hours immersed in the world of writing and marketing for teens. I met Bob Spiller, author of cozy mysteries who made me laugh so hard I had to excuse myself from his workshop on humor to go pee. And one of our speakers, Darby Karchut, has inspired me to try my hand at books for boys (I don’t usually write boy books, but I want to be Darby when I grow up, so I’m darn well going to try). Friday, Saturday and Sunday were other various workshops on writing and publishing. I can’t list them all, but I will mention that if you ever get a chance to listen to Carol Berg teach, don’t miss it. Or Donald Maass. Dear God. You’ll leave with your brain coming out your ears, but it will be well worth the cost of paper towels.

One of the things that makes a conference worth every penny is the opportunity to rub elbows with the giants (and the up and coming) of publishing. And one advantage of being in a wheelchair is that I got into the banquet hall early for every meal, meaning I got to scope out and pick the best seats (hey, I’m not above taking advantage of the disability when I can, I think I’ve earned it). I sat next to Debra Dixon, who runs her own publishing house, Amanda Luedeke, another agent I’m considering, and Lou Anders from Pyr Books, who kept Josh and I entertained with Star Trek stories all through the banquet.

My pitch appointment was scheduled for Saturday morning, around ten. Perfect for me. Not first thing in the morning, but before lunch so I could actually eat without feeling nauseous. During the first workshop of the day I was actually really nervous. I looked down at my watch and had that moment of panic when I realized I was pitching in less than an hour. This was my big chance, I’d been preparing for months. What if I blew it? So after the workshop, instead of going to another panel until my appointment, I went and sat in the lobby to calm down. Darby Karchut was sitting nearby and I had her book in my bag, so I zipped over to ask her to sign it for me (as distractions go, books are always my go to). She managed to wheedle my pitch out of me (confession: it didn’t take much wheedling) and got so excited when she heard about my novel that I forgot to be nervous. I had a great idea that I could articulate and who wouldn’t want to get on this train as it leaves the station.

By the time I got up to the room where all the pitches were held, I was still confident (thanks, Darby). As I rolled out of the elevator the coordinator met me and told me she was moving my appointment up to … right then! So I didn’t have time to sit and stew in my own juices, and now that I think about it, it was a very good thing I was right on time.

Kristin was very good about putting people at ease and leading with easy questions. She asked how my conference was going, and we gushed about how much we love Carol Berg. And then I gave her my pitch. For those of you that are interested, my first logline was “By Wingéd Chair is a young adult fantasy that is a retelling of Robin Hood where Maid Marion kicks butt from a wheelchair.” Scripted, “Ah”, and my second logline was “It’s about a teen struggling to make sense of her disability when the local lord tries to kill her father, drawing her into a plot that encompasses family betrayal and otherworldly magic. In order to save the day, she has to team up with an irritating outlaw who she doesn’t know if she wants to kiss or run him over with her wheelchair, and along the way she must learn to accept her limitations and embrace her strengths.” I’ve thought of some improvements I could make to it but it’s too late now. And she said she wants to see it so it must have been all right to begin with.
Success Story
So as soon as I got back from the conference, I went back to work on the first thirty pages of my manuscript, implementing all the things Carol Berg emphasized in her workshop on revision and wrote my query letter, keeping Weronika Janczuk’s tips in mind. It’s done, it’s sent, now all I can do is sit back and twiddle my thumbs and hope that the writing is as good as my beta readers have said (I can’t tell anymore, I’ve seen it so many times it all looks inane to me). Whatever the result, I am one step further than ever, so I’ll take that as a win.

I try to have a take home message for each of my posts, but I didn’t write this with one in mind. I guess what I learned this weekend was that if you’re passionate about something, you’re never done learning about it. You should keep getting better, keep honing your craft, and most of all never give up. As Susan Wiggs said at the farewell lunch, “the only sure way to fail is to quit”.

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